Have Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant sold out? Cameo-driven Beeb-com Extras tore up Tinseltown sentiment with snark, self-deprecation and earthy humanity.
First glances suggest their combined directorial debut is an about-face: a Hollywood-hued coming-of-age fable set in a nostalgia-steeped ’70s Reading, where one young lad – to paraphrase the blue-collar Springsteen anthem that inspired Gervais – is pulling out of town to win.
Has The Office’s bittersweet poetry of defeat, disappointment and tentative uplift been smoothed out and sun glazed?
Hold fire: it’s here, just faintly remixed. On the playful extras, Gervais and Merchant claim they wanted to tackle America at its own game, picking from a Brit-pool of rock-star lookalikes to play weekend heroes in a Travolta/Dean vein.
The result hits the feelgood jugular but isn’t overly romanticised, balancing the threat of stagnation with a persuasive portrait of youth’s halcyon summers.
Our likely, lairy leads make clichéd stock convincing: Jack Doolan gives good dork as Snork, Tom Hughes channels Richard Ashcroft as angry Bruce and Christian Cooke balances naivety/ smarts as Freddie, the quietly clever one most likely to outgrow wasting time defacing street signs with pictures of cocks.
As in their TV work, Gervais and Merchant go big on peripheral character studies. Ralph Fiennes plays a smarmy big-wig to Leonard Rossiter-ish perfection. Felicity Jones balances brains with repressed frustration as Julie, a would-be photographer whose oily intended (Matthew Goode) thinks she’s dreaming.
The sadness of shored-up lives throws affecting shadows: Francis Magee and Emily Watson devastate as a deserted husband/father and a neglected wife/mother respectively. Against this fleshed-out backdrop, any closing-reel triumphalism feels earned, not ersatz.
You could imagine the set-up on TV, yet Gervais/Merchant make it movie-worthy. Their Reading looks too cinematic at first but that prettiness has purpose, capturing how memory makes the past seem magic when it wasn’t – “nostalgia playing funny tricks,” says Ricky on the extras.
A few subtexts and ironies feel loaded, while Freddie’s workingclass family trouble the tone – the casting of Gervais (solid as Fred’s dad) and Julia Davis suggesting half-realised comic potential. But these are small gripes in a hearty Hollywood take-on.
The result is Springsteen as cinema: big and blustery yet romantic, stirring and truth-laced. And if you miss the mischievous meanness of The Office, the special features do contain some quality banter. “We did ask them to go out and have a beer together,” says Merchant of cast-bonding exercises.
“Yeah,” Ricky shoots back, mock-stingy, “we said one.” Sellouts? As Springsteen said, show a little faith.